Robert Henri and the Attentive Mind

Robert Henri, Portrait of Cori, 1907
Robert Henri, Portrait of Cori, 1907

One thing that constantly strikes me about Henri is his willingness to take risks. The very foundation of his practice is risk based. What is risk and how does that aid creativity?

Delacroix reflects, “Without daring, without extreme daring even, there is no beauty…We must therefore be almost beyond ourselves, if we are to achieve all that we are capable of!” (Delacroix, The Journal, p.137)

There is something so true about this. When one finds oneself in a moment of risk, where one’s life is held in balance, we become suddenly alert, awake, attentive to the moment. One’s consciousness is heightened. We become immediately aware of every movement, our senses highly attuned to our environment. We are receptive emotionally and allow both conscious and unconscious material to flood our being. This state of receptivity and awareness is the penultimate state of creativity. From this vantage, the artist is fully attentive to the image and how that image is seeking its presentation in the world.

It is only in such a state of risk, that beauty can be perceived. Beauty is the recognition of ‘significances’, relationships of unity and wholeness held together momentarily. These ephemeral relationships are only suspended long enough to be recognized and held in the mind through memory. From there the artist must hold the image and the emotion attached to it in order for beauty to be actualized. This imprint of the beautiful in the mind of the artist allows him the ability to create and builds in him a longing for those moments. It is the very reason the artist is constantly drawn to seek those moments in his experience of the world through his attentive gaze. This is the essence of the artists contribution to the world- an attentive mind.

“He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surface of his subject. Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brushstroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p. 17)

Henri had several ways in which he kept this sense of risk in his practice. His most important method was through his color practice. Henri never relied on the same set-palette, as most artists do. His method was to use a unique set of colors that would change with every subject that he painted. He sometimes used the same palette for multiple portraits and then would shift to another arrangement as his interest lead him. But he would treat each situation and subject individually and lay the palette out as such. Henri states, “Many artists just paint along, repeat over and over again the same phrases, little knowing the resources of the materials before them, and in many ways deadening their natural sense of color instead of developing it.” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p. 57)

In this state, using a different palette for each painting, one does not sleep. One cannot rely on set phrases of color mixes or color arrangement in the composition. One can only be prepared to discover a new what will unfold in the moment of actual work. This method also creates a heightened sensitivity to color. One gains the ability to just see more, slowly opening one’s eyes to what is really there. In this way, Henri enlarges his ability to compose unique color relationships. Also, this practice inherently expands one’s color memory, allowing Henri to perceive what is possible in the moment.

Henri used several other methods to create risk and therefore an attentive mind. But it was his color practice that had the most profound effect on his work allowing him to be highly receptive to the unfolding moment in the world and seize the beauty revealed there.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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